Since its inception, the payments industry has been predominantly male-oriented. But women have been making inroads for many years as merchant level salespeople (MLSs), consultants, information technology (IT) specialists, and ISO and payment processor executives. Consequently, their impact on financial services has been significant and vital - and greater than many payment professionals may realize.
Female ISO executives and MLSs seeking new opportunities have found it essential to be open to avenues they may not have considered previously. By exploring new options, some of the women at the top of our industry have found niches in which they are inspired to continuously excel.
"I was in financial services for seven years with FleetCards and Bank of America and was happy there," said Diane Naczi, Senior Vice President of Marketing for the cash advance company AdvanceMe Inc.
"But one day I got a phone call from a recruiter telling me about AdvanceMe, and so I thought from a personal growth perspective it might be interesting.
"I can honestly say that I walked away from that initial meeting with a feeling in the pit of my stomach thinking, 'This is really something and it's going to be big.' That was four years ago. I really believe in this product and how it can help small business owners, a universe of people that I have the utmost respect for. And you feel like you're doing something that has a purpose."
Regardless of gender, some people were simply born to do something particular and unique. Melody Wigdahl, Vice President for International/Major Accounts at Cincinnati-based GlenKirk West Consulting, believes a knack for sales was embedded in her genes.
"I started in high school in California when I was the sales manager for the newspaper and the yearbook," Wigdahl said. "But I believe my path was set way back in childhood. My great grandmother was a traveling salesperson selling women's clothing at the turn of the century. This was extremely unusual for a woman, but my mom always said that sales was just kind of in our genes."
Wigdahl was living in Reno, Nev., when she completed her degree in hotel administration. It was there that she met an instructor who told her that if she was in the hotel industry in Nevada, she was also in the gambling industry.
"She was a phenomenal woman who came from banking and was well respected and successful in a male dominated industry," Wigdahl said. "She took me under her wing and I went to work for her consulting firm in the hotel gambling industry."
Returning home to California, Wigdahl got in on the ground floor of the Internet, selling Web sites to real estate agents. "That was my first introduction to e-commerce," Wigdahl said. "Nobody knew what the Web was then, but that led me full circle back to financial services. From the contacts I made selling Web sites, people began asking how I could help them do payment processing."
In 1996, one of Wigdahl's associates was starting an online casino in Panama and wanted to know if she could provide him with credit card processing.
"I had never heard of online gambling, much less ways to process online payments," Wigdahl said. "At the time, the industry was only about six months old, but after 12 years it's now one of my core niches."
Christine Armitage, Director of Training and Education for Heartland Payment Systems Inc., began her professional life as a plumber, working on new construction projects and teaching construction at youth programs in Philadelphia. But her mother, a single parent who raised four children selling Avon Inc. beauty products, persuaded her to begin a sales career.
"I think women face the challenge of being heard in many industries," Armitage said. "But sales gives you the opportunity to stand on your own merits. One of the reasons I loved being a plumber was that no one could argue with my achievements. Challenging yourself to become more efficient and improve your techniques becomes a self-sustaining discipline.
"And I believe the payments industry, especially, gives women a real opportunity to turn on their brains. Women are on a level playing field because everyone is trying to get the attention of a decision maker and close deals. So being tenacious - as well as a good listener - helps tremendously. And there are many women who use these traits to their advantage out in the field."
Wigdahl has spoken at various conferences as a representative of the Internet gambling industry and assists merchants with implementing comprehensive payment, fraud and identity verification solutions.
"My specialty is taking new debit payment technology and introducing it to the right client," she said. "I really consider myself a matchmaker, if you will."
For the past three years, Wigdahl has also been the Vice President of New Accounts with UseMyBank Services Inc., a Toronto-based firm that facilitates real-time debit transactions through online bank accounts.
Her job is to match alternative payment companies like UMB with online gambling and retail merchants to provide solutions that are not credit card-centric.
"The United States is the only country in the world that focuses on credit cards instead of debit," Wigdahl said. "E-commerce is growing at such a rapid rate that we are boarding a significant number of nongambling merchants who are recognizing the value of taking something other than credit cards."
For some, the path to success in the payments industry was especially arduous. Rose Glater, founder and President of Morton Grove, Ill.-based check processor Midwest Merchant Consulting Inc., was a corporate attorney in Russia when Leonid Brezhnev assumed power in 1979. And when the new communist regime branded her a political criminal, she emigrated to the United States with her children.
"There was no future there for me or my children," Glater said. "When I came to America I didn't speak one word of English. My first job was in the customer service department with AT&T.
"My first couple of years [were] kind of tough, but when you jump in the deep side of the pool, you've just got to swim. And when you work for Ma Bell you're on the phone all day, so I had no choice but to learn the language quickly."
When the telecommunications industry faltered in 1999 and Glater's salary was cut by 40 percent, she needed alternative income. "I had a lot of experience in sales and customer service here in the states, and I also found that the negotiating skills I had learned as an attorney in Russia really helped me develop my business here," Glater said. "In my wildest dreams I never thought I'd be in sales. Now I can't imagine being anywhere else."
For newbies struggling to find their niche in the payment sphere, knowledge is the key to progress. "Whether you are a man or a woman, I do know one thing," Glater said.
"Your face might get you in the door, but if you don't look professional, if you don't have the knowledge of the business or confidence in yourself, you will be just as fast out of this business. Conduct yourself professionally and you'll be treated as such."
Toughness and tenacity are certainly not foreign to the women of payments. Linda Mahy, President and Chief Executive Officer for payment convergence specialist ConnectiveIQ, believes a tougher market only creates more opportunities if you have the right attitude. For the Austin, Tex.-based company, that opportunity presented itself in the health care sector, where Mahy is beginning to open medical professionals' eyes.
"Well, the bottom line is that there is a demand in health care for good payment professionals," Mahy said. "In banking terms convergence is huge right now, and when you look at health care versus banking, it's still payments, but people who walk into a doctor's office want more than a payment card. They want their cards to authenticate health care providers, co-pays and access their health savings account."
Mahy has spoken mainly at banking industry shows, but she is shifting to health care shows "to help educate those people because there is a dire need for it; their systems are very broken. And I believe that when the market zigs, you've got to zag. I believe getting health care fixed is on the top of President Obama's list, so I think we're going to see funds allocated there."
Mahy believes the turning point for women in the payments industry came when management realized women were eager to travel when their jobs required it. In the 1970s and 1980s, she was one of the few women on the road. Additionally, she feels that women have a higher emotional quotient (EQ) and are more detail-oriented than men.
"Sadly, men grow up so competitive, where women tend to prop each other up," Mahy said. "We're really better team players when it comes down to emotional intelligence. Of course, women have got to be smart about business, so we prepare and we study. But because we have a higher EQ, we understand our audience better and are willing to humble ourselves. We don't need to be the smartest person in the room."
As a result, their attitudes, work ethic and resolve have given women clout in the industry. "We've been around long enough that we have permission to be here," Mahy said. "I think men appreciate our vision and strategy. We are sitting in and running many of the board rooms because we do have something to say."
Mahy believes another factor contributing to the ascension of women in the payments industry is that many young men entering the business today were raised by single mothers or enlightened fathers. "They will have a very high EQ to go with a high IQ," she said.
Though women have made significant contributions to payments in the past two decades, attracting new women to the business remains a challenge. "There really isn't much published about careers in the payments industry, and typically women end up on back office support roles like chargeback management, risk management and compliance," said Andrea Wilson, CEO of online processor First Atlantic Commerce.
"There are very few women executives in online payment companies, and having to prove you are 'industry' is a typical barrier experienced by women," Wilson added. "I admire someone like Meg Whitman of eBay for her sheer determination in building one of the largest payment and trading companies in the world. If you want to find success, no cannot be an option."
In 2005, Women Networking in Electronic Transactions (W.net) was founded to facilitate networking, mentoring and support for female payment professionals. "W.net is about profiling successful women who can share their ideas, values and philosophies," said Joan Mitchell, Senior Vice President of Canadian processor Moneris Solutions Inc.
"Unfortunately, personal and professional development is not available by and large in the industry, and gals are saying 'How do I get to be there and what are the things I should do? What plan should I put in place?'" Mitchell added. "Many women have done that, so why not share those things?
"So W.net was born out of a desire to make a networking group available to all females in the industry and give our veterans a chance" to mentor protégées.
According to Mahy, the oversight and regulations coming from Capitol Hill might actually bring an infusion of new talent.
"We've been growing our own for so many decades, but with new mandates coming out of Washington, we're going to need people with expertise in economics, business, finance and mathematics," Mahy said. "We can count our payment attorneys on one hand - and with all the recent litigation, we'll not only need payment attorneys, but IT and patent attorneys as well."
For Lori Carney, Regional Sales Director at First Data Corp., the most important criterion for success, regardless of gender, is education.
"You need to understand the industry, the intricacies and perspectives of your clients and prospects," Carney said. "Focus on the trends in the market, be accountable and challenge yourself to avoid being stale. And never bring a problem to the table without a potential solution."
In her secondary role as President of the Midwest Acquirers Association, Carney spends time every month with competitors in the payments sphere discussing ways in which ISOs, processors and MLSs can expand their knowledge and stay motivated during the current economic crisis.
When Carney and her colleagues met a number of months ago to plan for the MWAA's seventh annual conference, they decided that financial stability, data security and product innovation were integral to a company's success. "And especially during this difficult year, value-added services will become more important than they ever were before," she said. "Merchants want the coolest, newest deals, but they want to save money as well."
Rebecca Kalogeris, Director of Product Marketing for eCommLink Inc., concurs that education is paramount. "I would definitely say for any woman considering a career in payments that, to get around the old boys network, you have to know more than they do," she said.
"That's the best way to do it, because there's no arguing or resistance from them when you know what you're talking about and can show them that you - and only you - can make a difference in their business. The greatest satisfaction is when they throw in [the towel] and say, 'Alright, you know your stuff, you win.'"
For Mahy, being passionate about her vision for the future keeps her inspired. "So many people around me are just so depressed and worried," she said. "I see so much fear and anxiety, and we just have to turn that into a better outlook.
"Historically, we know that the financial markets will rebound, but it's going to be painful. But if you go through our history of recessions and the Great Depression, that's when some of the greatest opportunities and companies were born," Mahy added.
Wigdal noted that women in the industry are well-suited to forge ahead in today's climate and beyond.
She believes women are good at "drilling down to find the core needs of the merchant as opposed to simply trying to sell them a service" or "the technology of the moment," and she offered the following food for thought: "If you can't make a friend out of your client, they're not going to last."
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